By Garance Burke
The Associated Press
FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — Vang Pao, a revered former general in the Royal Army of Laos who led thousands of Hmong guerrillas in a CIA-backed secret army during the Vietnam War, has died. He was 81.
After immigrating to the United States once the communists seized power in Laos in 1975, Vang Pao was venerated as a leader and a father figure by the large Hmong refugee populations who resettled in California’s Central Valley, Minneapolis, and cities throughout Wisconsin.
Vang Pao died Thursday after being hospitalized for about 10 days, said Michelle Von Tersch, a spokeswoman for Clovis Community Medical Center. The Fresno Bee has reported that he was ill with pneumonia.
As a teenager in World War II, Vang Pao fought the Japanese, who were attempting to take over Laos.
In the 1950s, he joined the French in the war against the North Vietnamese, who were dominating Laos. He later worked with the CIA to wage a covert war there.
Former CIA Chief William Colby once called Pao “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War,” for the 15 years he spent heading a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army fighting against a communist takeover of the Southeast Asian peninsula.
After his guerrillas ultimately lost to communist forces, Vang Pao immigrated to the United States, where he was credited with brokering the resettlement of tens of thousands of Hmong, an ethnic minority from the hillsides of Laos.
“He’s the last of his kind, the last of the leadership that carries that reference that everyone holds dear,” said Blong Xiong, a Fresno city councilman and the first Hmong American in California to win a city council seat. “Whether they’re young or old, they hear his name, there’s the respect that goes with it.”
Regarded by Hmong immigrants as an exiled head of state, Vang Pao made frequent appearances at Hmong cultural and religious festivals and often was asked to mediate disputes or solve problems.
In 2007, however, he was arrested and charged with other Hmong leaders in federal court with conspiracy in a plot to kill communist officials in his native country. Federal prosecutors alleged the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom raised millions of dollars to recruit a mercenary force and conspired to obtain weapons.
Even after his indictment, he appeared as the guest of honor at Hmong New Years celebrations in St. Paul and Fresno, where crowds of his supporters gathered to catch a glimpse of the highly decorated general as he arrived in a limousine.
The charges against Vang Pao were dropped in 2009 “after investigators completed the time-consuming process of translating more than 30,000 pages of pages of documents,” then-U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown said in a written statement. The government arrested the defendants before understanding all the evidence because they felt a threat was imminent, he said.
In November, a federal judge in Sacramento threw out parts of the case against 12 other defendants.
They include retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Youa True Vang and 11 members of California’s Hmong community, many of whom fought for the United States during the Vietnam War. All 12 have pleaded not guilty since their arrests in 2007.
“Vang Pao was a great man and a true American hero. He served his country for many years in his homeland, and he continued to serve it in America,” said attorney William Portanova, who represents one of the remaining Hmong defendants. “To think that these elderly men would be in a position to try to overthrow a country is, on its face, almost laughable.”
Vang Pao had been a source of controversy for several years before the case was filed.
In 2002, the city of Madison, Wis., dropped a plan to name a park in his honor after a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor cited published sources alleging that Vang Pao had ordered executions of his own followers, of enemy prisoners of war, and of his political enemies. Five years later, the Madison school board removed his name from a new elementary school named for him, after dissenters said the school should not bear the name of a figure with such a violent history.
But such criticism meant little to Hmong families, who looked to Vang Pao for guidance as they struggled to set up farms and businesses in the United States. The general formed several nonprofits to aid the refugee communities and set up a council to mediate disputes between the 18 Hmong clans.
“He’s always been kind of the glue that held everyone together,” said Lar Yang of Fresno, who featured an interview with Vang Pao last month in the Hmong business directory he publishes annually. “He’s the one that always resolved everything … I don’t think it can be filled by one person at this point.
There will probably be a search for identity. There will be a lot of chaos for a little while, until things get settled.” ♦
Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.